Reverse Engineering a Champion: Five Traits That the Last 10 College Football Kings Have Shared — And What That Tells Us About This Year’s Favorites

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Last weekend brought the release of the preseason Associated Press poll, the last and most official of the deluge of August college football rankings,1 and the one that best reflects the national consensus as opening kickoff looms. Like every other poll that preceded it this summer, the AP enshrined Ohio State as the preseason no. 1, in its case unanimously, making the defending champs the first team to ever receive every first-place vote in an initial AP ballot. The only drama was who would come in second (that would be TCU) and how dumb voters will look in three months for overrating Notre Dame.2

The Buckeyes’ appeal is obvious enough, and their unchallenged place atop the preseason pecking order was preordained months in advance. With virtually the entire two-deep back from the team that ripped off 13 straight wins en route to the 2014 title, finishing off that run with a physical flourish in playoff wins over Alabama and Oregon, there’s little doubt the 2015 edition looks like a repeat champion in the making, at least on paper.

Which brings us to the question of the day: Just what does a modern college football champion look like, exactly? What common threads bind the teams that have won on the biggest stage to set themselves apart from everyone else? Which aspiring contenders are most likely to exhibit those traits in 2015? Least likely? And does Ohio State really fit the template as snugly as its lofty preseason status suggests?

To answer those questions, I looked at the past 10 national champions from the BCS and playoff eras (Texas in 2005, Florida in 2006, LSU in 2007, Florida in 2008, Alabama in 2009, Auburn in 2010, Alabama in 2011 and 2012, Florida State in 2013, and Ohio State last year)3 to isolate a handful of common characteristics beyond “they’re all, you know, really good.” I then applied those traits to the ostensible 2015 front-runners, loosely defined as the 15 teams with the best odds to go all the way according to Vegas Insider, a list that corresponds almost exactly to the top 15 in both the AP and Coaches polls. Some of the trends are more ubiquitous than others, but they should all help clarify what really matters when separating the wheat from the chaff.

Before we get to the five common threads, though, let’s quickly address one factor that, counterintuitively, does not matter:

Having a Proven Quarterback

Cam Newton led Auburn to the national championship in his first year as an FBS starter.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Cam Newton led Auburn to the national championship in his first year as an FBS starter.

The first question that’s typically asked about any team with any kind of ambition is “Who’s the quarterback?” which is reasonable: By definition, returning starters on teams that are considered legitimate national contenders have proved that they belong on that level, and precipitous declines from contender to pretender often coincide with the departure of a top-shelf starter behind center. (Look at Florida since Tim Tebow, Texas since Colt McCoy, and Oklahoma since Sam Bradford.) But while incumbents can usually be counted on to prevent a playoff push from going belly-up, they haven’t proved any more likely to finish the job than quarterbacks logging their first significant action.

In fact, in the past decade, the championship has been more likely to go to a team led by a first-year starter, as it did in 2007 (LSU’s Matt Flynn), 2009 (Alabama’s Greg McElroy), 2010 (Auburn’s Cam Newton), 2011 (Alabama’s AJ McCarron), 2013 (FSU’s Jameis Winston), and 2014 (OSU’s Cardale Jones, running the last leg of the title race in place of another rookie starter, J.T. Barrett). The losing teams in the championship game featured first-year quarterbacks in 2007 (Ohio State’s Todd Boeckman), 2010 (Oregon’s Darron Thomas), 2012 (Notre Dame’s Everett Golson), and 2013 (Auburn’s Nick Marshall); last year, Alabama earned the top seed in the playoff behind first-year starter Blake Sims.

If your team has a returning starter at quarterback, fine. You have one less reason to worry about how the upcoming campaign might go horribly wrong. If not, though, rest assured that the new guy isn’t a deal breaker, and could actually wind up being a catalyst. I’m looking at you, Auburn, Baylor, Florida State, Georgia, Notre Dame, and Oregon.4

Now, on to the things that do matter:

1. Elite Recruiting

Here are the top dozen recruiting teams over the past four years (2012-15) according to 247Sports’s composite rating:

15.8.25-Recruiting Chart (2)

All 13 national champions since 2002 are represented in that group; in fact, the only teams from outside of the group that have played for a championship in the past decade are Oklahoma (2008) and Oregon (2010, 2014), both of which narrowly missed the cut.5 It may seem like an obvious point to make — like, wow, who could have guessed that the teams that have assembled the deepest talent base over a number of years are the teams that tend to win big? — but for all the devoted acolytes of blue-collar intangibles out there who forever insist that shiny recruiting stars don’t mean anything compared to old-fashioned grit, it still bears repeating: Yeah, they do. The most fundamental criterion for building a serious contender is depth of talent, and the recruiting sites, flawed as they may be, remain the best tools we have to measure that.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that, of the 15 teams set to open the season with 35-to-1 or better odds of claiming the title, nine also rank among 247’s top 12 recruiting powers over the past four years. The only outfits with a realistic title shot that will have to significantly outplay their recruiting rankings to see it through are Oregon, Michigan State, Clemson, and the Big 12 triumvirate of Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma.6 Recent trends notwithstanding, it’s hard to think of the Sooners, Ducks, or Tigers as underdogs, talentwise. But if the Spartans, Bears, or Horned Frogs wind up going all the way, they’ll be the first exceptions to this rule.

2. A First-Term Coach

Since the turn of the century, coaches who win big also tend to win fast, often as early as Year 2. Bob Stoops, for example, took over at Oklahoma in 1999 and hoisted the crystal ball in 2000. Jim Tressel arrived at Ohio State in 2001 and won the championship in 2002. Urban Meyer landed at Florida in 2005 and brought back a championship in 2006. Gene Chizik was met with derision before his first season at Auburn, in 2009, and in 2010 he brought the Tigers’ 53-year championship drought to an end.

Elsewhere, if Year 2 didn’t yield a championship, it often served as a catalyst for one in Year 3 or Year 4. Nick Saban started at LSU in 2000; in 2001, he led the Tigers to their first SEC crown in more than a decade, and in 2003 to their first national championship in more than four decades. Pete Carroll was USC’s fourth or fifth choice to take over a foundering ship in 2001; the Trojans finished in the top five in 2002, and went on to win back-to-back national titles in 2003 (AP) and 2004 (BCS). Les Miles followed Saban at LSU in 2005; in 2006, he took the Tigers back to the BCS, and he claimed his own championship in 2007. Saban, fresh from an abbreviated stint in the NFL, touched down in Alabama in 2007; in 2008, he led the Tide to a 12-0 regular season, and he earned his statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium with a national championship in 2009. Saban’s old assistant Jimbo Fisher needed three years to return Florida State to a BCS game and four to claim a national title, in 2013. After winning its first 24 games under Meyer, Ohio State continued the trend in 2014 by winning a championship in his third year. The era of the “Five-Year Plan” is long gone: These days, it’s all about riding the momentum of the initial wave.

In fact, since 2000, only one coach has claimed his first national title for a school that had employed him for more than four years at that point: Mack Brown, who was in his eighth season at Texas when the Longhorns upset Carroll’s Trojans for the 2005 BCS crown. Even more remarkably, aside from Miles and Miami’s Larry Coker, who inherited one of the most stacked rosters ever assembled in 2001, none of the coaches who won a ring in the same span took over a team that finished in the Top 25 the year before his arrival. Coaches who wind up winning championships go from zero to 100 very quickly, and they don’t take any detours en route to their destination.

This year, aspiring coaches who fit the first-term profile are Meyer (still only in Year 4 in Columbus, and leaning heavily on his first two recruiting classes), Gus Malzahn (entering Year 3 at Auburn), Steve Sarkisian (Year 2 at USC), and Jim Mora (Year 4 at UCLA); there’s also Mark Helfrich (Year 3 at Oregon), although given that Helfrich spent four years as Chip Kelly’s offensive coordinator in Eugene before being promoted to the top job, his tenure might be more accurately described as the second term of the Kelly administration. Elsewhere, potential dark horses in this category abound, especially in the SEC, where a handful of ascendant programs — Arkansas under Bret Bielema, Ole Miss under Hugh Freeze, Tennessee under Butch Jones, Texas A&M under Kevin Sumlin — have designs on turning optimism into a legitimate breakthrough.

3. A Defensive Line of Doom

One of the more challenging aspects of assembling this list is that championship teams from the past decade haven’t lent themselves to any distinct statistical trends: With a couple of exceptions,7 the victors were good to great in every major category on both sides of the ball. And it goes without saying that, personnel-wise, championship teams tend to feature a lot of star power across the board.

But the one area where that man-for-man advantage has held the most consistently is along the defensive line, where blue-chip dominance is the necessity, not just the norm. Of the past 10 champions, all except Florida in 2008 have featured at least one All-American on the D-line,8 and all except Auburn in 2010 (a team anchored by one-man wrecking crew Nick Fairley) have featured multiple future draft picks from that unit who went in the fifth round or higher:9

15.8.25-DL of Doom Chart

2015 shapes up as a banner year for star-laden fronts: Ohio State returns not only the collegiate equivalent of J.J. Watt in Joey Bosa, but also Adolphus Washington, a senior with first-round potential at defensive tackle; Baylor boasts a pair of preseason All-Americans in Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings; UCLA is counting on juniors Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark to occupy multiple blockers in its 3-4 scheme; Michigan State will be anchored by a two-time All–Big Ten pick at end, Shilique Calhoun, flanking a pair of former blue-chip recruits, Lawrence Thomas and Malik McDowell, who can play inside or out; Auburn will have a pair of future draft picks in Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, both in their third year; Alabama (of course) will feature, on top of its usual depth, five-star juniors Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson hitting the prime of their college careers; and although TCU lacks a single, above-the-fold star to elevate into the “All-American” column, if the Horned Frogs’ deep, senior-laden front is as good as it was in their Peach Bowl romp over Ole Miss, distinguishing any one member from the rotation of James McFarland, Terrell Lathan, Mike Tuaua, and Davion Pierson won’t be necessary.

4. A Stellar Secondary

Championship teams have collectively excelled in defending the pass: With the exception of Auburn’s highly flammable secondary in 2010 and Ohio State’s good-not-great effort against opposing passers last year, the other eight champions since 2005 have all ranked among the top six nationally in pass efficiency defense, a far more consistent showing than in any other conventional category on either side of the ball. And outside of the impenetrable rushing defense that formed the cornerstone of Alabama’s recent title runs, it’s usually been more difficult to throw against the eventual champs than it has been to run:

Of course, good pass defense begins with a good pass rush, bringing us back to the importance of a marauding front four. Still, for almost all of the champions, preventing big plays on the back end was a defining trait. This year, as in many other years, the title of most imposing secondary belongs to LSU, which ranked third nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2014 and returns three starters (cornerback Tre’Davious White and safeties Jalen Mills10 and Jamal Adams) with obvious NFL futures — and that’s before we get to up-and-comers Edward Paris and Kevin Toliver II, who are vying for the second corner opposite White. Other realistic contenders that return at least three starters in 2015 from a unit that ranked in the top 30 in pass efficiency D: Georgia, Ohio State, and Alabama.

5. Creative Scoring

Oregon's defense has displayed a consistent knack for generating turnovers, a point of differentiation for the Ducks.

Doug Benc/AP Oregon’s defense has displayed a consistent knack for generating turnovers, a true point of differentiation for the title-hungry Ducks.

Another common link between championship outfits is their penchant for supplementing their always efficient and frequently explosive offenses with points on defense and special teams. Every champion of the past decade has generated multiple non-offensive touchdowns, and most of them11 have produced at least four; the last two champs, Florida State and Ohio State, combined for 17 defensive and special teams touchdowns, two of which — a 100-yard, go-ahead kickoff return by FSU’s Levonte Whitfield in the fourth quarter of the BCS title game against Auburn, and Steve Miller’s pick-six for Ohio State versus Alabama — proved indispensable in securing their titles.

Not coincidentally, the Seminoles and Buckeyes also ranked among the national leaders in defensive takeaways, which is a notoriously volatile category to predict from one year to the next. Of the top 15 contenders this year, only five (TCU, Oregon, Michigan State, Florida State, and Baylor) have forced at least 25 takeaways each of the past two years. And of that group, the team that’s shown the most persistent commitment to thievery is Oregon, which may be the only defense in the nation that can substantively back up its claim of fostering a turnover-oriented philosophy after forcing more than 25 takeaways in seven consecutive seasons. Baylor has crossed the 25-turnover threshold four years running,12 TCU three. For the contenders that haven’t managed to match that consistency, it’s much harder to predict whether the ball will continue to bounce their way.

The other, slightly more predictable half of the creative scoring equation is the return game, where eight of the top 15 contenders bring back a player who returned at least one kickoff or punt for a touchdown in 2014; three members of that group (Oklahoma’s Alex Ross, USC’s Adoree’ Jackson, and Oregon’s Charles Nelson) all found the end zone twice on returns, while Georgia’s Isaiah McKenzie did it three times, helping UGA match TCU with an FBS-best eight non-offensive scores. LSU also brings back two players who housed a punt return (White) or kickoff return (Leonard Fournette). Return TDs aren’t a factor that teams can count on from one week to the next, but somewhere along the line, the Sooners, Trojans, Ducks, Bulldogs, and Tigers are likely to benefit hugely from their potential. 

OK, So What?

Consider this a disclaimer: I’m not making any predictions based solely on these criteria, and neither should you. Think of this exercise more as a reality check, especially if you’ve found yourself gravitating toward the TCU bandwagon:

15.8.25-Engineering a Champion Checklist

The Horned Frogs will open the season at no. 2 in both the Coaches and AP polls, corresponding with their standing in most of the preseason magazines. But to live up to that billing, they’ll have to topple a couple of decades’ worth of precedent that says they don’t look the part in terms of their overall talent or their trajectory under long-serving head coach Gary Patterson. On the other hand, while UCLA appears to fit the championship bill on a surprising number of fronts, the Bruins might have an even more insuperable hurdle to overcome than anything in TCU’s path if newly appointed starting quarterback Josh Rosen fails to shatter the true freshman QB ceiling. In either case, a victory on January 11 would fundamentally alter our picture of what a 21st-century champion looks like. Of course, it’s also possible that USC’s post–Leonard Williams defensive line or Auburn’s oft-abused secondary will emerge as a surprise strength, bringing an otherwise fit contender carrying a glaring red flag in line with the template. The talent is certainly there, and there are exceptions to every rule.

But on the precipice of the 2015 season, there’s still only one candidate that doesn’t need any surprises or exceptions to look the part: Ohio State, the clear front-runner in this analysis and any other that takes itself seriously. Aside from a handful of untimely suspensions for the season opener at Virginia Tech, the defending champs check every box with an authority that very few teams are able to muster this time of year, even if they’re coming off a run as impressive as the Buckeyes’ unlikely playoff triumph. We knew that was going to be the case even before the confetti began to fall on OSU’s championship win over Oregon in January, and now that the encore attempt is mere days away, the sense of inevitability that accompanied the Buckeyes’ victory has only grown more entrenched. History is a useful guide, but at this point, Ohio State is less interested in following it than in making it.

Filed Under: 2015 College Football Preview, College Football Preview, College Football, Ohio State Buckeyes, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans, Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs, Auburn Tigers, LSU Tigers, Oregon Ducks, Baylor Bears, Michigan State Spartans, Florida State Seminoles, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, TCU Horned Frogs, Oklahoma Sooners, Clemson Tigers, Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Gary Patterson, Les Miles, Joey Bosa, 2015 College Football Playoff, College Football Playoff Selection Committee, BCS, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton